Elspeth Cheung
Jan 6, 2021

How brands kept pace with the Chinese Dream in a year like no other

Seven major trends shaped the market in 2020, and will continue to do so, according to Kantar's global BrandZ valuation director.


Even before Covid-19 the Chinese Dream was evolving: the accumulation of wealth was declining in importance in favour of self-improvement, wellness, the environment and national welfare. The pandemic accelerated the underlying shifts in consumers’ values, attitudes and behaviours, and will continue to do so.

In a year of exceptional pressure and unpredictability, Chinese brands continued to successfully pursue growth at home and globally. And according to BrandZ’s annual study, China’s 100 most valuable brands gained 12% in overall value in 2020.

This demonstrates truly extraordinary performance, which they achieved by swiftly aligning their brand and marketing strategies with seven major trends shaping the market—successfully understanding the needs and desires of consumers, and making bold changes in response.

1. The desire for wellness and self-improvement

As consumers adjusted to increased material wealth, they shifted focus to improving their quality of life and health. Almost 80% of Chinese people intend to pay more attention to health following the pandemic, according to Kantar China Monitor. In the food category, dairy brands Yili and Mengniu were among those introducing healthier options. Both have continued to advertise aggressively, and reinforced their commitment to wellness by sponsoring global sporting events.

We also saw healthcare brands expanding into the wellness business, with the likes of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) specialist Yunnan Baiyao launching products in new categories, including cosmetics and dental care.

The three education brands in Top 100 almost doubled their combined value over the year. Xueersi, which increased its value 120%, and New Oriental (+78%) rapidly responded to the spike in demand by expanding their online offerings and reaching more households, sometimes with free content to encourage trial.

2. The pursuit of premium

Today’s Chinese consumers believe their hard work entitles them to the best. While people still hunt for bargains, they also trade up—for instance, buying prestige make-up and skincare.

Among the brands launching premium ranges was Midea (26%), which introduced its new Colmo brand, featuring stylish, AI-empowered home appliances including air conditioners and washing machines.

3. Rising national pride

Consumers are grateful to the nation for improving the lives of millions of citizens, and proud of the quality products being manufactured. Patriotism increased in importance post-pandemic, according to Kantar China Monitor.

Leveraging this, the apparel brand Li-Ning re-entered the Top 100 after successfully appealing to consumers with a premium sub-brand that celebrates Chinese culture and product quality, decorating clothing with calligraphy and other designs.

4. A lust for experience

The brands in the Top 100 that score highest on ‘positive experience’ grew their value over three times faster year-on-year. Unparalleled standards for delivery time and convenience have raised the bar, and consumers now expect brands to improve their life.

Alibaba—China’s most valuable brand (+9%)—offered partner brands its bespoke operating system (OS) to help them optimise their digital operations. Linking its customer data and logistics capabilities also enabled it to recognise and immediately meet micro-moments of need.

To strengthen its physical presence, JD (+17%) opened JD E-Space, an experiential centre where consumers can test products and scan codes for purchase and delivery.

Content commerce is a growing trend that improves convenience by integrating social media and ecommerce. Short-video sharing apps like Douyin (TikTok) often direct viewers to shopping sites so they can purchase items for rapid delivery.

5. Purpose prevails

Chinese consumers increasingly believe brands should improve society, according to Kantar China Monitor.

To mark its 10th anniversary, Tencent (+9%) shifted its purpose from emphasising connectivity to providing ‘Value for users, tech for good’. Ecommerce group-buying platform Pinduoduo helped businesses and farmers in rural areas to sell in upper-tier markets, and Kuaishou supplied ecommerce capability and tools to help low-income Chinese people develop as online entrepreneurs.

6. Desire for the new

Aware of the vast choice available to them, consumers increasingly seek something unique. Value growth for the brands in the Top 100 that score highly on ‘innovation’ is almost nine times greater than those that score low.

Haier (+15%) has transformed into a home appliance Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem which includes products manufactured both by Haier and by partner companies. Continuous collaboration between Haier, its users and its partners drives constant evolution.

Less high-tech, but no less successful, other brands focused on extending their range to increase their appeal. Yili expanded into non-dairy categories including water, coffee, cereal and energy bars.

7. The development of lower-tier cities

The rising disposable income and smartphone penetration of consumers in smaller cities has created new opportunities. Alibaba focused much of its growth strategy on lower-tier markets, particularly during the Singles Day shopping festival in November, while online classified ad marketplace 58.com launched 58 Town to serve these communities. Supor (+53%), a maker of small appliances, performed well in lower-tier markets because of its physical stores and favourable pricing.

We’ve witnessed Covid-19 have a massive impact on what Chinese consumers buy, and their relationship with brands. So what’s next? While current priorities pivot around ‘care’—for personal health, the environment, and the welfare of the nation—as the threat subsides people will be ready to seek new enjoyment and experiences. Understanding and navigating this care/dare tension will help position brands for success in 2021.

Elspeth Cheung is global BrandZ valuation director at Kantar.

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